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A silhouette of protesters against a white background. The figure in the front of the image has an arm raised and is obviously shouting into a bullhorn. Behind this figure, other protesters hold signs in the air.

Nadya Ustyuzhantseva/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Protest is a fundamental part of college life and a cornerstone of American democracy, yet university leaders have every right to insist on a culture of protest that respects the academic mission of higher education. Universities are not unfettered forums for free speech; they are institutions devoted to free inquiry, a higher goal that demands higher standards of public discourse.

As the semester draws to a tense close on campuses across the country, college presidents should be thinking now about the tone they want to set for a new year and a new era of unrest. American civic life is not getting any calmer as we head deeper into election season, and campus quads aren’t likely to stay quiet this fall. But this is precisely the moment to imagine democracy and campus life at their best—to insist on a better, fairer and more humane way to engage one another.

Ensuring that campuses remain forums for both activism and scholarship is no easy task, especially in today’s polarized climate and in the glare of constant media scrutiny. One of the core challenges with this latest round of campus protests is that almost no one—not the students, not the administrators, and certainly not the public looking in from the outside—seems clear on where boundaries are drawn. What constitutes protected speech, and when does it cross the line into unlawful disruption? Does pitching tents on the quad constitute a disruption of free inquiry, an instance of free expression, or something else? Who makes those determinations, and how are they communicated to the wider campus?

I lead College Presidents for Civic Preparedness, a unique consortium convened by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars that brings together 61 (and growing) diverse college presidents from a broad range of higher education institutions across the country. Our goal is to advance free inquiry, civil discourse and critical thinking, which are essential civic norms, to prepare the next generation of well-informed, productively engaged and committed citizens.

The aim of our collective work is to strike a difficult balance between facilitating student expression, ensuring safety and centering the core academic mission of higher education, both inside and outside the classroom. Achieving this balance depends on clear and consistent guidelines for allowing protests—and setting their boundaries. Some campuses this spring have gone well past setting boundaries, but that’s all the more reason to survey lessons learned and consider strategies for the year ahead, doing all that we can to avoid the scenes of violence and chaos that undermine the mission of higher education.

In conversations with more than 100 college presidents grappling with how to protect free expression and a constructive academic environment, I have identified common ground, even among their different approaches and perspectives regarding the current surge of student activism surrounding the Israel-Hamas war. Specifically, five key ideas have emerged for facilitating constructive and safe demonstrations on campus. These recommendations are meant to help college leaders advance free inquiry even in moments of unrest. Our aim is to protect free speech as a constitutional right but insist on free inquiry—one of the three Civic Commitments agreed on by our group of presidents—as the higher goal.

  1. Set conduct rules, enforce them consistently and explain them constantly.

To be effective, restrictions on protests must be clear, well-communicated and evenly applied. Campus leaders need to reinforce the rules often and across multiple channels—social media, direct outreach to student groups, public announcements—so there’s no ambiguity. People lose confidence when rules seem to shift based on politics or public relations. Clear regulations allow protesters to make informed decisions about civil disobedience and the consequences they’re willing to bear for the sake of a cause.

Whenever enforcement is necessary—whether it’s dispersing a protest or sanctioning a student—officials owe the campus a detailed explanation of what happened and how it was handled, even if they don’t share individual decisions. In a vacuum, good intentions will be manipulated, and worst explanations assumed.

Another lesson: We need a diverse group of messengers and media channels to communicate those rules and rationale. The president cannot be the sole messenger, which means that the president will need to build a broad coalition to convey the message, through multiple means and many times. As we look toward an unquiet fall, the lesson of this moment is that there’s no such thing as too much communication around rules and consequences.

  1. Masks off.

Unless they have a documented medical exemption, protesters should be required to show their faces. Indeed, this is current law in some states. Anonymity undermines the spirit of open dialogue and fosters an environment of distrust. Insisting on transparency and accountability in public discourse helps uphold the civil nature of campus engagement.

  1. Keep outsiders outside.

Campus activism should be driven by members of the campus community. While public campuses may have limited control over access, institutions should consider whether the use of valid, content-neutral, “time, place and manner” restrictions can help preserve the educational environment.

  1. Distinguish between violence and civil disobedience.

Peaceful protests are protected by the First Amendment; violence and threats of violence are not. Campus leaders must unequivocally condemn any form of physical violence and property destruction and are well within their rights to enforce accountability for those actions.

  1. Listen to students with an open mind. Engage in good faith and require the same.

Spend the summer strengthening relationships with student leaders and student groups before you need to draw on the mutual trust you have accrued. And universities should offer plenty of different platforms for hearing and acknowledging the underlying moral concerns of young protesters, who may be disillusioned with traditional avenues of political participation and frustrated with their ability to influence decisions at the institutions they attend. At the same time, be clear that you expect the same good faith from the student leaders and the student body.

These recommendations aim to keep colleges centered on their educational mission, insisting that protests serve a culture of open dialogue and mutual respect instead of treating campuses as a battlefield. The value of academic freedom, and the goal of a campus environment that encourages critical inquiry and constructive dialogue, must be respected—by college leaders and by protesters alike. That’s what students sign on for when they enroll in higher education, and university leaders should uphold those expectations.

For many campus leaders, faculty, staff and students, this has been a long and challenging academic year. I admire and appreciate the leadership and the difficult decisions college presidents have to make every day, each certain to disappoint someone or some group. Though many students are stepping away from campuses for the summer, leaders must keep their eyes firmly on what might lie ahead. Political polarization, election campaigning, war and divisive rhetoric continue. What leaders do this summer to plan and prepare will lay the foundation for increased understanding or continued agitation in the new academic year.

Rajiv Vinnakota is president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, a nonprofit organization that cultivates talent, ideas and networks that develop young people as effective, lifelong citizens.

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